Jack Lang, president of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), called it a “historic moment”: an exhibition of a site that has been almost unknown to the outside world, via the new show Al Ula: Marvel of Arabia, which opened on Monday, October 7 at the IMA in Paris.
Al Ula, known as Hegra or Madain Saleh to locals, is a vast heritage site in northwestern Saudi. It comprises the spectacular tombs that the Nabataeans built in the first century BC, when they travelled down the peninsula to move away from Roman power in the north, and established Al Ula as their second city. But there is much beyond that. As it sits on a natural oasis, Al Ula was home to many civilisations over the years: the Lihyanite dynasty, which made the site its capital, then called Dadan, and which grew rich from the frankincense trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In the first century the Romans established a fort at Hegra to mark the southern limit of the empire, and after the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Al Ula prospered again as a crossroads for pilgrimage routes across the peninsula. When the Ottomans built the railroad through Hijaz in the 1900s, it stopped in Madain Saleh, and the tracks and some of the outbuildings are still available to see.
See the the diverse beauty of Al Ula here:
IMA's exhibition shows how all these inhabitants made their mark: from seashell ornaments found in Hegra to ex-voto figures from the Lihyanite period. The tombs themselves, the most spectacular part of the site, appear not only in images but also in a section on Nabataean funeral rites. Similar to the early Egyptians, the tribe practised mummification, coating bodies with fat, resins and vegetable gums in order to slow their decay. The bodies were then wrapped in three layers – first in a fabric made of dyed-red wool, and then two coarser outer layers of linen – before being sheathed in a decorated leather shroud, and brought into the necropolises carved into the rock.
Of particular historical importance in Al Ula is its store of rock carvings: extensive examples of engraved writings – in a variety of scripts – and drawings. The depictions relate both to religious rituals and daily life, some showing animals that no longer exist in the region, such as a kind of cattle known as the auroch and an unidentified bird resembling a short, fat ostrich.
The IMA show, spread out across two floors of the Jean Nouvel-designed building, tells the story of this layered place, with a fair bit of help from digital graphics. It has fewer archaeological artefacts, especially compared to other recent blockbuster Arab archaeology shows, such as Roads of Arabia, which originated at the Louvre in France in 2010 and travelled to Louvre Abu Dhabi last year. That is most likely due to the narrow geographical scope of the subject material, and the fact that many of the discoveries of the site are as much material culture as they are information about the way life was lived in Al Ula over its jaw-dropping 7,000 years of habitation.
The curators, Laila Nehme and Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, are archaeologists who have long worked on the site; Alsuhaibani, moreover, was born in the Old Town, and his stories and those of his family and friends are being captured in the oral histories component of the extensive French-Saudi development project for Al Ula.
The announcement of the French-Saudi project, made at the exhibition's opening, hints at the wider ambitions for the site: for the Saudis in terms of tourism and cultural pride, and for French and Saudi archaeologists, as a chance to sift through and find new discoveries that have been buried – quite literally – under the sand. It's important to note, however, that the partnership builds on ones that already exist: it's not quite fair to characterise Al Ula as an entirely unknown site. A French-Saudi mission conducted excavations in Madain Saleh starting in 2002, led by Nehme, and archaeologists from the kingdom surveyed the area in 1966, protecting it as a park since 1972. Since 2008, it has had Unesco protected heritage status – a first for a Saudi site.
But there is much more to find, and one can only wonder what an Al Ula: Marvel of Arabia exhibition might look like in 10 years' time – hosted, perhaps, at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Al Ula: Marvel of Arabia is at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris from Wednesday, October 9 until Sunday, January 19, 2020.